Globetrotting through the pages of books has long been a favorite pastime for many. And with post-pandemic restrictions, more of us have turned to vicarious travel, often via novels, to satisfy our wanderlust and curiosity about the world.
So you might say I made my first “trip” to a certain South Pacific destination, thanks to reading Nicki Chen’s latest novel When in Vanuatu.
Inspired by the time she and her husband lived in the Philippines and Vanuatu, the story follows Diana, a trailing spouse troubled by infertility after years of living abroad. When in Vanuatu dispels the notion that moving to a warmer, tropical climate promises an idyllic existence. But it also stands as a reminder of the redemptive and healing power of friendships, wherever we are in the world.
Armchair sojourners will delight in the details, from delicious specialties at the dinner table to divine beaches, and find much to ponder in its narrative as well.
Here’s Nicki’s bio on Amazon:
Nicki Chen was born in Sedro-Woolley, WA, in 1943. While studying at Seattle University, she met her future husband, a Chinese engineer. They lived for a time in her hometown, but before their third daughter was a month old, his new job took them to a new home in the Philippines. They didn’t return to the United States to stay for another twenty-two years. While abroad, Ms. Chen earned an MFA in Creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, a feat that required nearly round-the-world travel twice every year. In 1983 she visited Xiamen, China, her husband’s birthplace and the setting for her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup.
Ms. Chen has been an accomplished Chinese brush painter and a batik artist. Currently she lives in Edmonds, WA, and spends her time writing and traveling to visit her far-flung children and grandchildren.
What was the inspiration for your novel?
Before we moved to Vanuatu, I knew next to nothing about it—which, I suspect, is the case with most people in the world. But I was charmed by the country, by its beauty, its land and people. I thought it deserved to have a novel written about it. And I went from there.
The protagonist of your novel is a trailing spouse named Diana who is grappling with infertility. Why did you decide to explore infertility through your narrative?
Of the expatriate women I knew in Vanuatu, most had no particular reason for wanting to be there. They were simply trailing spouses. I wanted a character who chose to live in Vanuatu for herself and for the peace and beauty of the country.
On a side note, the phrase “trailing spouses” was never used as far as I know during the time we were overseas (1971-1993). We were simply “Embassy wives” or “WHO wives” or “Bank of America wives,” etc. In my case: “an ADB wife.” But “trailing spouse” is apt.
In writing this novel, you’ve drawn from the time you and your husband spent living in Asia and the South Pacific. What are some favorite memories from that time that also made their way into your novel?
The first thing that comes to mind is the weekend beach trips we took in the Philippines. My favorite was to Hundred Islands. It was mentioned in the novel, but, sadly, it didn’t work out for Diana and Jay and their friends. In Vanuatu, snorkeling at Hideaway Island was a favorite. I still remember the underwater landscape there, which came in handy when I wrote Diana’s snorkeling scene.
Food I’ve eaten also made its way into the novel — the excellent churros y chocolate at Dulcineas in Makati, Clarita’s guinataang, halo halo especial. The restaurants and cafés in Port Vila are all based on places where I’ve eaten, although not necessarily the dishes Diana ordered. Manila has many wonderful restaurants. Diana and Jay made their own choices, though.
Your book marks the first time I’ve ever read a story set in Vanuatu. Could you share with us something about Vanuatu that has surprised or fascinated you?
First of all: the people. Before we thought about moving to Vanuatu, I imagined all Pacific islanders as Polynesians. But the ni-Vanuatu, as they call themselves, are Melanesians, more closely related to the people in Papua New Guinea than those in Hawaii.
Remnants of the colonial period. In the days when European sailing ships were exploring and colonizing the rest of the world, Vanuatu became the colony of two countries simultaneously, England and France. They called the result a condominium. (Some called it a pandemonium.) The colonizers set up two of everything: two flags, two police forces, two currencies, and two school systems. Vanuatu became independent in 1980, so they no longer have two flags, but they still have separate schools for English and French speakers.
Language: Vanuatu has the highest density of languages per capita in the world with an average of only 1,760 speakers for each of the 113 indigenous languages.
The official language, though, is Bislama, a creole language derived from English. It was developed during the period of “blackbirding” in the 1870s and ‘80s when ni-Vanuatu and other Pacific islanders were kidnapped or signed on as indentured laborers to work on plantations in Australia or Fiji. The men were thrown together with workers who spoke a variety of languages, so they developed a lingua franca based on English. Later they brought that language home with them.
The language used in schools, however, is either English or French.
Seeking one’s identity emerges as a theme in this story. Do you think searching for one’s identity is more challenging while living abroad, and if so, why?
At various times in our lives, we might feel a need to better understand or clarify our identity, or even to reinvent ourselves. That could happen at home or when living abroad.
But yes, I do think it’s more difficult when living abroad. First, there’s the added question of deciding how much of one’s identity is tied up with the home country and all that implies. Am I an American (or Frenchman or Pakistani) who just happens to be residing in this foreign country? Or am I more interested in fitting in in that country? Or do I want to find my identity as a member of the international community, a cosmopolitan?
The more difficult problem for a trailing spouse is her career. Her former career and a big part of her identity is unlikely to be available to her where she lives now, and the opportunities to create a new career are limited, especially in a developing country or a place where work permits for non-citizens are tightly restricted.
What do you hope people gain from reading your novel?
First of all, I hope readers will enjoy reading it. After all the lockdowns and quarantines during COVID, I hope they will enjoy some vicarious travel to a couple of interesting and beautiful Pacific island countries. And I hope the reader will benefit from the experience of living for a few hours in the characters’ skins, that they will laugh and cry with them and better understand the hopes and struggles of people like Diana and Jay and their expat friends.
Many thanks to Nicki Chen for this interview! You can learn more about Nicki and her writing at her website Nicki Chen Writes. The novel When in Vanuatu is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.